Vincent van Gogh - Head of a Peasant Woman with White Cap 1884

Head of a Peasant Woman with White Cap 1884
Head of a Peasant Woman with White Cap
Oil on canvas 43.5 x 37.0 cm. Nuenen: December, 1884
St. Louis: The Saint Louis Art Museum

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The Letters of Vincent van Gogh

To Theo van Gogh. Isleworth, Saturday, 7 and Sunday, 8 October 1876.
Dear Theo,
It’s Saturday again, and I’m writing a few words once more. I’m longing so much to see you again, oh, I can long for it so much sometimes. Do write soon and tell me how you are.
Last Wednesday afternoon we took a lovely walk to a village an hour away from here. The road there goes through meadows and fields, along hedgerows of hawthorn full of blackberries and clematis and here and there a tall elm tree. It was so beautiful when the sun went down behind the grey clouds and when the shadows were long, and we chanced to meet Mr Stokes’s school, where there are still several boys I know.
The clouds kept their red glow long after the sun had set and the twilight was gathering over the fields, and in the distance we saw the street-lamps being lit in the village. This morning there was also a beautiful sunrise. I see it every morning when I wake the boys up.
Last night I opened that book by Souvestre again (Le philosophe sous les toits), and I found such a friendly description of Paris in it, a kind description; I copied it out for Pa and Ma, perhaps you’ll like it too:
9 May. The beautiful evenings have returned; the trees are beginning to uncurl their buds. Hyacinths, daffodils, violets and lilacs scent the flower-sellers’ stalls; the crowds have begun to stroll along the quays and boulevards again. After supper, I too came down from my garret to breathe the evening air. It is the hour when Paris shows herself in all her beauty. During the day, the plaster of the facades fatigues the eye with its monotonous whiteness, the heavily laden carts make the cobblestones shudder under their huge wheels, the hurrying crowds cross and collide, intent on not missing a moment of business; there is something harsh, anxious, breathless about the city. But everything changes the moment the stars come out; the white houses fade into misty shadow; nothing is to be heard but the wheels of carriages as they bowl along on their way to some party or other; nothing is to be seen but people strolling idly or gaily by; work gives way to leisure. Now everyone draws breath from that fierce race through the day’s activities; what strength remains is given over to pleasure! See the dance-halls lighting up their colonnades, the theatres opening, the tit-bit stalls lining the avenues, the newsvendors making their lanterns shine. Paris has clearly put aside the pen, the ruler and the apron; after the day dedicated to work it wants to keep the evening for enjoyment; like the masters of Thebes it has put off serious business till the morrow. I love to share this festive time — not to take part in the general gaiety but to observe it. The joy of others may embitter jealous hearts, but it fortifies submissive hearts; it is the ray of sunshine that opens up those two lovely flowers called ‘confidence’ and ‘hope’.
Usually, the view that opens before my window delights me. It is a clutter of roofs whose tops overlap and criss-cross, superimposed on one another, and upon which the tall chimneys raise their peaks. Yesterday I still found something Alpine about them, and waited for the first snow, to see glaciers on them; today I see nothing but tiles and stovepipes. The pigeons that fed my rustic fantasies now seem no more than poor feathered creatures that have taken the roofs for a farmyard; the smoke that rises in faint wisps, instead of giving me dreams of the vent-holes of Vesuvius makes me think of cooking and dish-water; lastly, the telegraph that I can see from afar, on the old tower of Montmartre, looks to me like a revolting gallows whose arm rises above the city.

In sorrow did I bow my head
There is no peace on earth I said
The world is strong
And mocks the song
Of ‘peace on earth, Goodwill to men’!

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead! nor doth He sleep!
What’s wrong shall fail
What’s right prevail
With peace on earth, goodwill to men.’

There’s still a lot to do here for many to whom God gives His blessing and whose lives He spares.

While I was writing to you I was summoned to Mr Jones, who asked if I felt like walking to London for him to collect some money. And when I returned in the evening, happily there was a letter from Pa with news of you! How I’d like to be with you, with Pa and with you, old boy. And thank God you’re a little better, even though you’re still weak. And you’ll be longing to see Ma too, and now that I hear you’re going home with Ma it makes me think of a passage in Conscience:
I have been ill. My spirit was weary, my soul disenchanted, my body sickly. I, whom God has at least endowed with moral energy and a vast instinct for affection, was falling into the depths of the bitterest discouragement, and I felt with terror a deadly poison creeping into my shrivelled heart. I have spent three months on the heath: you know, that lovely region where the soul returns to itself and enjoys sweet repose; where everything exudes peace and tranquillity; where the soul, in the presence of God’s immaculate creation, shakes off the yoke of convention, forgets society and frees itself from its bonds with the vigour of returning youth; where every thought takes on the form of prayer; where the heart is emptied of everything that is not in harmony with the freshness and freedom of nature. Oh, there the weary soul finds calm; there, the exhausted man regains a youthful strength. Thus were my days of sickness spent, days of ineffable joy for my soul: smiling at the sun when, in all its majesty, it casts its first rays over the horizon; watching the countryside awaken and catching the first notes of the glorious hymn it addresses to heaven; roaming heaths and forests; questioning my soul — and thinking — scrutinizing and admiring the life of plants and animals, taking deep breaths of the pure air, stopping, going on, turning back, and talking out loud in the solitude; dreaming of splendid things: of God, of the future, of our dear Flanders, of peace and love. And in the evening! To sit under the wide chimney-piece, feet in the ashes, eyes fixed upon a star that sends me its light from on high through the chimney-top, as if calling out to me; or, sunk in a vague reverie, to look at the fire, watching the flames come to life, grow, gasp and crackle, pushing each other aside as if vying to lick the cooking-pot with their tongues of fire — and to imagine that this is human life: to be born, to work, to love, to grow up, and to die.... Up above, smoke crowns the chimney with its weightless plume; of all that noise, that crackling, that heat, nothing more comes forth.
Mr Jones has promised me that I won’t have to teach so much any more, but that I may work in his parish from now on, visiting people, talking to them, and so on. May God give this His blessing. Father, I pray that Thou dost not take me out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep me from the evil.
Now I’ll tell you about my walk to London. I left here at noon and arrived where I had to be between 5 and 6 o’clock and posted the letter to Pa and Ma along the way. When I came to the neighbourhood in the city where most of the galleries are, in the neighbourhood of the Strand, I met a lot of acquaintances; it was right at lunch-time and so there were a lot of people on the street, coming from or going to their offices. First of all, I met a young clergyman who used to preach here and with whom I became acquainted at that time, then Mr Wallis’s clerk and then one of the Messrs Wallis himself, in those days I went to their house once or twice – he already has two children – and then I ran into Mr Reid and Mr Richardson, who are old friends by now. Last year at this time Mr Richardson was in Paris, and we walked together to Père Lachaise. Afterwards I went to see Van Wisselingh, where I saw sketches for two church windows.
In the middle of one of the windows the portrait of an elderly lady, such a noble face, with the words ‘Thy will be done’ inscribed above; in the other window the portrait of her daughter, with the words ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’. There, as well as in the gallery of Messrs G.&Cie, I saw beautiful paintings and drawings, it’s such a deep pleasure to be reminded time and again of Holland through art.
In the City I also went to see Mr Gladwell and to St Paul’s. And from the City to the other end of London, there I visited a boy who had left Mr Stokes’s school because of illness, and I found him completely recovered, outside in the street. Then on to the place where I had to collect the money for Mr Jones. The suburbs of London have a peculiar beauty; between the small houses and gardens there are open places covered with grass and usually with a church or school or poorhouse between the trees and shrubbery in the middle, and it can be so beautiful there when the sun goes down red in the light evening mist. It was like that yesterday evening, and later I did so wish that you had seen the streets of London when it began to grow dark and the street-lamps were lit and everyone was going home, it was obvious from everything that it was Saturday evening, and in all that hustle and bustle there was peace, one felt, as it were, the need for and joy at the approach of Sunday. Oh those Sundays and how much is done and striven for on those Sundays, it’s such a relief to those poor neighbourhoods and busy streets. It was dark in the City, but it was a lovely walk past all those churches along the way. Close to the Strand I found an omnibus that brought me a long way, it was already rather late. I rode past Mr Jones’s little church and saw another in the distance where light was still burning so late. I headed for it and found it to be a very beautiful little Roman Catholic church in which a couple of women were praying. Then I came to that dark park I already wrote to you about, and from there I saw in the distance the lights of Isleworth and the church with the ivy and the cemetery with the weeping willows on the banks of the Thames.
Now then, Theo, get well soon and read this letter sometime when Ma is sitting with you, because I’d very much like to be with you both in thought. I’m really very glad that Mr Jones has promised to let me work in his parish, and that I’ll eventually find the right thing. We must seek that, but God must help and that He does, there is no life that He cannot sanctify and inspire. May I also discover ‘that this is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ came into the world to save sinners’, being useful and of some value.
I long so much to see you sometimes. A hearty handshake to you, and give Ma your hand for me when she’s sitting with you. Adieu.
Your most loving brother,
Adieu. May God grant that I find grace in the eyes of my Father and Mother and in the eyes of those who will come after me. And now, my boy, another word to you. He who puts himself in a Christian sphere, and seeks and does Christian work as best he can, he will soon feel that he is on a path that he must traverse whether he wants to or not, and will cry out in anguish, God help me, I can do nothing else, and God hears this cry and God is a more powerful help in life than all human and worldly help.